Being a veterinarian is not just about treating animals but also about caring for members of our society that cannot speak for themselves. 

Dr. Aparna Arun, our next pathbreaker, Surgery Resident at the Animal Medical Center in New York City, operates on emergency and elective cases. 

Aparna talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about growing up in a household of animal lovers and taking up a career in veterinary medicine as a natural choice! 

For students, being able to help people indirectly by helping their pets and service animals also provides a valuable service to society.

Aparna, tell us about early life influences

My interest in animals was sparked during my childhood in Bangalore, where my family spent weekends and vacations in a house on the border of Bannerghatta National Park. Trips to the zoo and early morning bird watching sessions were some of my father’s favourite activities, and my sister and I would eagerly tag along. At home, The Discovery Channel, Grolier Encyclopedia, and National Geographic magazines further stoked my passion for wildlife and the environment, me to sign up for a forest summer camp and, when I was older, a herpetology workshop and the national elephant census among other nature activities.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation? 

After high school, I did a bachelor’s degree in science (chemistry, botany, and zoology) at Christ University, Bangalore with a view to fulfil prerequisites for a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) course. Prerequisites are classes that are required to be done before you can start the course you are applying for. DVM is a post-graduate, master’s degree course. In the US, most veterinary schools require undergraduate courses in social sciences, humanities, and statistics in addition to core courses such as chemistry and biology. As I was unable to fulfil the additional prerequisites needed for applying to my favourite schools (Cornell University, University of California, and University of Colorado), I searched for other schools that were accredited (approved) by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and that I could qualify for. My search brought me to the University of Melbourne in Australia where I then completed my DVM. 

What were some of the key turning points that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional, and cool career? 

Being raised in a household of animal and nature lovers, I always had a strong interest in the fields of science, biology, and environment. When I was eight years old, my family moved to the US for one year as my father was working on an IT project. One day in fourth grade, we had a careers day when parents of my classmates came to school to tell us a little bit about their jobs. One of them was a veterinarian. She brought a few x-rays and an assembled cat skeleton with her and showed us how to spot concerns on x-rays and what bones support the cat’s legs. I was spellbound then and there. I would say the combination of my upbringing and this one class were what turned me to veterinary medicine. In school and undergrad, I took several opportunities, such as those listed in the answer for Q1, to explore the field more. At one point, I wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian. However, after starting vet school, I fell in love with the elegance and problem solving of surgery, which were very attractive to me. I chose a veterinary surgeon, Dr. Wing Tip Wong, as my mentor and shadowed him during my holidays. In my final year, I also spent weekends at Southpaws Specialty, Emergency, and Referral Hospital in Melbourne, scrubbing into surgeries with their specialists to immerse myself in the field. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path. 

After vet school, I took about a year off to travel, help my family, and get married. After that, I moved to New York City with my husband. As my vet school mentor, Dr. Wong, had advised, I applied for jobs as a general practitioner (GP). I soon learned that in the US, most clinics in big cities look for internship-trained veterinarians. 

I got a few job offers and settled on a clinic that had five other veterinarians. For the first three to four months, I shadowed the head veterinarian in his consults and surgeries. Soon, I was comfortable by myself in the consult room and performing surgeries solo as well. 

I remained in this job for a little over two years – gaining valuable experience and building confidence in my own knowledge and skill. However, I yearned to be able to do more specialized surgery and to make surgery the focus of my career. While I was still in my GP job, I looked through the website for the Veterinary Internship and Residency Matching Program (VIRMP). There, I saw that one of the two rotating internships in New York City, BluePearl Veterinary Partners (BPVP), still had openings for additional interns. A rotating internship is a general internship where you rotate between all the available departments – medicine, surgery, emergency, dermatology, oncology, cardiology, etc. Although I had not created a profile on the website, I was able to see the requirements – letters of recommendation, vet school final transcript (report card), and a personal statement (essay). Over the next few days, I compiled all the required documents and emailed the program directly. I was fortunately accepted. 

Following a one-year rotating internship, I stayed on at the same hospital for a one-year surgery specialty internship. This gave me the opportunity to continue working with the same surgeons, improve my skills, and deepen my knowledge.

In both the general and specialty internships, I mainly dealt with cats and dogs as these are the most common pets in an urban setting. Moreover, there were other hospitals in the city that specifically had exotics departments to see other species. Surgeries that I participated in included fracture repairs, gastrointestinal foreign body removals, gall bladder removals, urinary bladder stone retrieval, joint stabilization (dogs frequently tear a ligament in their knee that then leads to lameness), and placement of devices that slowly close abnormal blood vessels.

While in this internship, I and several colleagues published a research paper on surgery in dogs that was accepted by a prestigious German medical journal.

The following year, I applied for a residency in surgery through the VIRMP and was matched to my current employer – The Animal Medical Center (AMC), one of the most competitive programs in the country. I think one of the key actions that helped me match was doing a two-week externship at the AMC while I was doing my rotating internship at BPVP. This allowed me not only to see the hospital for myself but also to acquaint myself with the surgeons and staff. Come interview day, they already knew me which made for a smoother conversation. Most candidates pursuing surgery end up completing multiple surgery internships and fellowships before being accepted into residency – I strongly feel that (in addition to luck) my externship, recommendation letters, and journal publication were what enabled me to get into AMC’s residency program after just one surgery internship. 

How did you get your first break?

As mentioned earlier, my mentor, Dr. Wing Tip Wong, had recommended that I broaden my horizons before I focus on surgery. I got my first job in general practice by attending as many interviews and open job postings as I could in New York City. I find LinkedIn is also a strong tool for job hunting. While I was in my first job and even now, I regularly get several job offers via the website.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them? 

Some of these are already covered in other questions, but I will add more details here. 

Challenge 1: Pre-requisite courses – I attempted to do a double degree through Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) to complete physics, statistics, social sciences, and other courses outside my main CBZ courses that were listed as requirements for several North American veterinary schools. However, I was unable to complete my IGNOU course. My solution was to look for other AVMA accredited schools that required only the core sciences as pre-requisites. 

Challenge 2: Pre-requisite experience. Similar to the courses, most of the US schools required a certain number of hours of experience in animal related fields such as veterinary clinics, boarding facilities, farms, etc. There was only one veterinarian in Bangalore who allowed me to shadow him while I was on summer vacation, but again, I was not able to amass the number of hours that were being requested. When I found the DVM program at the University of Melbourne, they allowed me to obtain the experience between school years, during the holidays. I was able to work in diverse animal settings – a dairy farm, bird boarding facility, animal hospital, aquarium, zoo, etc. And having the information from the foundation years of vet school allowed me to appreciate all facets of these establishments including logistics, animal husbandry, and human health and safety. 

Challenge 3: Dealing with non-verbal patients that can sometimes be very aggressive. This is more a general challenge for any veterinary personnel. It is important to read body language and provide a non-threatening environment. Most animals exhibit what is called fear aggression and so slow movements, avoiding eye contact, avoiding coming from above the animal, etc., are ways of reducing anxiety and fear. For some others, pre-medication with anti-anxiety medications or even sedative medications is required prior to being brought in for a vet visit. The Fear Free website and certifications have made it their mission to help people understand this better and in turn, treat our patients better.

Where do you work now and what does it entail? 

I am currently a resident in surgery at the Animal Medical Center. A residency is a three-year training program in a specialty subject. In the middle and at the end of a residency, the resident completes two phases of board exams to become a specialist – in my case, I hope to become a Diplomate in the American College of Veterinary Surgeons – Small Animal (DACVS-SA). 

As a resident, my duties include knowing thorough historical details about each of my patients and how those details apply to them on their surgery day – does an older dog have heart disease? What does that mean for his anaesthesia? Are there certain medications I should tell my anaesthetist to avoid? In addition to preparing for each of my patients at least 2-3 days ahead of the surgery, surgery days require a lot of attention to detail. The day starts with performing a thorough physical exam on each patient – noting any details that could change the plan for the day. Next up, we discuss all the cases for the day as a group (morning rounds) – going over physical exam findings, pertinent blood work results, and steps to be completed prior to the patient reaching the operating table. We then break for any morning lectures or presentations (1 hour) before scrubbing into surgery. Before we make the first cut, it is important to run through a checklist to ensure everything is on track and address any concerns that may arise (The Checklist Manifesto by Dr. Atul Gawande is an invaluable resource in understanding the how and why of implementing checklists). 

In surgery – it is important to know the regional anatomy of the area that is being operated – what are the major blood vessels that run in the area? Are there any nerves that might get affected if I tug too hard on one part of the muscle? Surgical skill itself takes time to develop and it is important to work with mentors who actively advise you on best technique. After each surgery, either I or the senior surgeon call the owner to discuss what we found and how their pet did under anaesthesia. After all the surgeries for the day are done, I examine each of my patients again and see how they are recovering. We then have evening rounds about each of the patients and what treatments they are on post-operatively.

At the AMC, although majority of my case load is cats and dogs, I have been able to work with many of the animals that I read about in books as a child! I have worked with a jaguar, river otter, three-toed sloth, several rabbits, and some ferrets. At this point in my career, I am in ‘small animal general surgery’. Small animals generally refer to companion animals as opposed to large animals that cover horses and production animals (cows, sheep, donkeys, llamas, etc.). General surgery includes all soft tissue and orthopaedic procedures. Once I am qualified as a specialist, most private practice jobs would expect me to continue to be a general surgeon. Currently, its only in academic settings that veterinarians focus on soft tissue vs. orthopaedics. Some of these have further training programs such as a fellowship in surgical oncology while others are more preference based and don’t require additional training. 

What do you love about your job?

What I love about my job is being able to work with my hands and making a difference in the lives of my patients and their owners. Specifically, in my current job, I also love training with the world renowned specialists at AMC and being able to talk to them about my patients when I have questions. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Veterinary medicine allows us to care for the members of society that cannot speak for themselves. To many people, pets are like family members and provide joy and mental stability. Additionally, some people rely on them as service animals – guide dogs, seizure assistance dogs, etc. Being able to help people indirectly through helping their pets and service animals also provides a valuable service to society. 

Tell us an example of memorable work you did

The surgery department is one where we see an equal number of emergencies as well as scheduled procedures, and sometimes even more. When animals come in critical condition, undergo surgery, recover, get discharged from hospital, and then start to show their normal personalities after 2-3 days at home, doing things they love, and we get updates from the grateful owners – emails or phone calls – that is an amazing feeling. 

Once, a good Samaritan, who was a lawyer by training, found a cat that must have fallen out of an apartment window and was impaled on the fence below. She had been eviscerated by the fence. He carefully lifted the cat off the fence, wrapped her in a towel and brought her to the hospital I was working at. He left a substantial amount of money for her treatment. The emergency staff resuscitated her and provided her with supportive care overnight. Come morning, she was stable for surgery. We essentially cleaned all her internal organs (which were all miraculously intact), returned them to within her body, and then evaluated the state of her body wall. A lot of the muscle had been torn off and the remainder would be insufficient to close the gap. We placed a graft of processed porcine small intestinal submucosa (SIS) to cover the defect and then sutured her skin back over the top of it. Thankfully, cats have very elastic skin and there was enough to cover over the graft. The emergency staff had also scanned her for a microchip and found her owners. After a few days in the hospital, she was discharged to continue her recovery at home. She was fully healed in a few weeks and back to being a normal cat! Between the good Samaritan, the use of the graft, and the beautiful recovery, this is one of my favourite cases.

What is your advice to students?

Extra-curricular activities are important – make sure you research opportunities in your intended field of interest – is there a talk or a workshop that can better help you understand the field? Are there books or summer courses that could guide you? Finding a mentor in your field of interest can also accelerate your progress, pointing you in the right direction. For this generation, even following some of your favourite people and institutions on social media can give you insight and updates on things you can be involved in.

What are your plans?

After I spend some years working as a specialist surgeon in the US, I would love to open a veterinary hospital in India. I would like to start an internship program once the hospital is established. I enjoy teaching and would love to provide exposure to those interested in the field.